Warm weather taking its toll on New Jersey peach farmers

With its barren fruit trees  punctuated by the noise of aircraft flying from the nearby Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, the Russo Family’s 250-acre farm in Burlington County, N.J. has a haunting beauty in the wintertime.   What isn’t immediately apparent is the worry on the minds of the three generations who till this soil because of this year’s unusually warm weather.

Nicholas Russo, 69, who tends the land with his 88-year-old father and his son Michael, 44, are closely monitoring the buds on the peach trees, which have arrived early this year.

Bloom time is usually around April 20, with the harvest in July. If the pink flowers on the peach trees bloom ahead of schedule, they could be wiped out by a late season cold snap.

“This could be a problem for our peach crop this year,” said Russo, who would prefer the temperature to be in the more seasonable 40s instead of the 50s.

“If you get a frost, you get a frost and keep on going. Farmers keep on going. We’ve got to keep on going.”

If there is a bad freeze, the Russo family is out of luck and could face thousands of dollars in losses. Crop insurance will enable them to recoup some, though not all their money.

The Russos are hardly alone. New Jersey is the fourth-largest peach producing state, with a crop valued at more than $31 million, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

“If it stays in the 40s and 50s we might be alright,” says Jerry Frecon, a Rutgers Cooperative Extension Agent who added that the peach farmers are “certainly a little bit worried.”

Peaches aren’t the only thing concerning Russo. Across from his 16-acre peach orchard is his strawberry field covered in plastic to protect it against the elements. His family also grows more than a dozen different varieties of apples, which attract throngs of visitors to his family’s farm to pick them. Just like peaches, apple blossoms are susceptible to a bad cold spell.

Blueberry plants are also at risk because of the unusually warm weather, which worries the DiMeo family of Hammonton, the Atlantic County town that is the heart of the state’s $62.5 million industry.

The weather has to remain “consistently warm” through April for the crop to develop as normal, according to Anthony DiMeo, one of the owners of the 1,000-acre DiMeo Fruit Farms & Berry Plant Nursery. He is not betting that will happen.

“We have never experienced a winter this mild,” he said, adding that his family has been farming for four generations. “We are totally and completely at the mercy of mother nature.”

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